Life On Mars? – David Bowie

Likes. Retweets. Followers. Trends. Fads. There is no doubt that the media commands a massive influence on modern society. Not only that, but it is a media that was born with the potential for the sharing of expression, art, knowledge, wisdom, and original ideas with the world but has become increasingly driven and corrupted by money and profit. We attempt to escape from the drab of day to day life only to find that what we watch on TV, hear on the radio, and see on the Internet is all too often no more interesting than our own lives. We spend all of our time lost, in search of something greater than our everyday routines or what the media offers to sedate us, when really, greatness is not something that can be found. It’s something we have to create for ourselves.

Background:

David Bowie’s “Life On Mars?” is a social commentary on the media’s constant recycling of the same ideas, themes, concepts, plots, and characters and how society uses these mediums to escape from real life. And yet, all of these redundant movies, publishings, and concepts are no less redundant than our own lives. However, in spite of our recognition of this we continue to be drawn to the silver screens, which we now carry in our pockets as well as keep in our living rooms. “Life On Mars?” was released on Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory. When it was released as a single in 1973, it hit the charts at No. 3, where it remained for three weeks. It is listed as number 1 on the Daily Telegraph‘s Top 100 Songs of All Time.

The Song:

“It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go”

 In the words of Bowie himself, the song is about “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media”. Her outlook on life is bleak, “a God-awful small affair”, reflecting themes of disaffected youth in search of something beyond what is considered “normal” or “acceptable”. In hope of discovering a fantastical world free from the obligations and rules of real life, she turns to the media.

“But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen”

The atmosphere is dark and surreal as the girl approaches her television “in a sunken dream”, as if she has been enslaved by the images that flash across the “silver screen”. But her perceived friend, who was supposed to liberate her from the restrictions of her own world, is revealed to be no better than the dull, superficial place that she left.

Hooked to the silver screen2

© 2011 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0]

“But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on”

Addicted to our escapes from reality, it appears as though many of us have essentially joined the ranks of a slave race. Knowing little more than what we see flash across the TV screens, hear on the news and radio, read in the papers, and now carry in our back pockets, people are fed information from corporations and authorities. The song takes on almost a dystopian sci-fi atmosphere reminiscent of an Orwell novel (Bowie would later name two songs off of a later album, Diamond Dogs, “1984” and “Big Brother”, in reference to Orwell). This futuristic air reinforces the idea of the song being a forewarning of the danger of the media’s power over the masses to people of both today and of later generations. When information all comes from a controlled source and people are told what to think, few will ever rise up and challenge the system providing the information. The young girl, however, is still innocent and has yet to be corrupted. She therefore recognizes the rest of the world as well as the controllers of the media as “fools” and “spits” on them.

Phone Zombies

“Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?”

The girl recognizes the media’s folly. While television, popular novels, pop music, and other “art forms” are intended to offer an “escape” from reality, what she sees is no more exciting than the mundane life that she is desperately trying to run away from. All she receives are empty images, devoid of purpose, meaning, or complexity. A “lawman beating up the wrong guy” could just as easily occur in real life as on television. Life only becomes art when unique perspectives, concepts, or ideas are reflected through it. Instead, the girl finds that she is simply being fed sensationalized drama, which just so happens to be “the best selling show” for the masses. The girl questions if perhaps beyond the conventional world she has been raised in, there is a possibility of something original, exciting, and adventurous existing elsewhere — a refuge for the bizarre, the outcasts, and the thinkers on Mars.

best selling show

© 2008 by Eric Kilby [CC BY – SA 2.0]

“It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

As the media’s goal is simply to make money, artistic expression is suppressed in the name of the capitalist system. Pressured into increasing revenue, “Mickey Mouse has grown up a [cash] cow”, through the opening of Disneyland. Originally an outlet for artistic expression in the form of children’s cartoons, Disney is now a successful money-making corporation that is now equally concerned with profits as imagination. At the same time, communist ideals, which are intended to be anti-commerical and anti-capitalist, can be made profitable as well. As communism grew increasingly popular amongst those of the counterculture movement, Bowie points out the irony, which can be seen on many levels, of the immense profit made by the sale of John Lennon’s most recent single at that time, “Working Class Hero” (a great song, by the way), which many have claimed reflect Lenin’s communist principles (thus Bowie’s pun). In spite of both the song and the communist ideals being anti-commercial, they have made immense amounts of money. Meanwhile, people flock to visit tourist destinations “from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads” that they have seen on TV, hoping to experience the magic that they have seen in commercials for themselves. The media also has the power to inflate egos until “Rule Britannia is out of bounds” and conflicts erupt over extreme nationalism. People, including the girl’s mother (who she condemns) are told what to buy, where to go, and what to believe, and they eat it up like “dogs” who listen to whatever their masters say and “clowns” who make fools of themselves.

“But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
young adult cliches

It’s been written ten times or more.

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?”

We search in vain for an escape from the mundane but instead find that the vast majority of the movies we watch, posts on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook that we see, the commercials that we consume, and now even the music that we listen to are all simply reiterations of superficial concepts that barely scratch the surface of the potential beauty that life has to offer. They only provide enough stimulation to distract us from our surrounding worlds and at best appeal to our sensations and maybe provide a superficial shock value, but never enough substance to get us to really think. As the girl finds that the media can be just as bland life itself, the sad truth is revealed that, much like the TV shows, trendy novels, and pop music we consume, most people will never venture beyond the safe world of conformity that they are familiar with. Few will challenge the system, take the untrodden path, or stick it to the man, but those who do will change the world. While these people may seem like freaks amongst the mindless drones that make up the rest of the population, there is always hope that we will find greater meaning and purpose beyond our own, small familiar world… Perhaps in a Life On Mars.

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© 2010 by kristine [CC BY – NC 2.0]

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2 thoughts on “Life On Mars? – David Bowie

  1. ‘Life On Mars’ is such a great song choice – not only is it one of the best songs of all time, found on one of the best albums of all time and paired with what might be my favourite music clip ever (which isn’t even that surprising – it’s Bowie, after all!), but its lyrics are among Bowie’s best and are endlessly fascinating. Perhaps they are even more relevant today, with the rise of social media and – though it has brought many positives, as well – the complete media saturation and condoning of conformism that has been brought with it. ‘The girl with the mousy hair’ would be a particularly interesting character, today – perhaps she would convince people to think for themselves, and with the help of her incredibly unique creator (it’s hard to think of a better person to write such a song!), add more individualism into what has become a somewhat boring world, on the surface? Great analysis! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And I agree that this song is becoming increasingly relevant today with social media, which has so much potential for greater connectivity but also great potential for abuse. With so many people continuing to follow all of the same trends and fads, Bowie revives my faith in humanity. His incredibly complex and insightful lyrics combined with his electric blue panda eye makeup never fails to make my day. XD

      Liked by 1 person

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